Traditional Hand Woven String Bags From West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea
Called Bilums, these traditional hand woven string bags form the basis of our community work.
These amazingly versatile and incredibly strong bags fulfill a range of functions in PNG- from recording events to carrying a baby, vegetables, or even tools.
Traditionally made by women, these bags are used by both men and women across Papua New Guinea.
Child Hood Memories Carried into Adulthood.
I grew up in Papua New Guinea, so I figure I have a soft spot for these amazing bags.
As a child I played with dolls [ along with cars, trucks and numerous other things]. I didn’t use a pram to push my dolls around in, though. I used a bilum to carry my dolls in in the traditional manner. My younger brother [ who still lives in PNG with my sister in law] was often carried in a bilum as a baby. In fact, I found the exact one the other day- made with flax twine and dyed with natural dyes. A true family heirloom.
I suppose it was therefore natural that I’d end up wanting to give back to my child hood home. It wasn’t until my sister in law and I put our heads together, that the idea of selling on bilums emerged, however.
A Visit Back To My Childhood And The Traditional Hand Woven String Bag.
Last year, for the first time, I took my husband to see where I grew up. If he really wanted to understand me, he needed to experience what it was like growing up in PNG.
The cultural environment you are brought up in plays a significant part in formulating you as an adult. For me this came out in a range of ways. A ready acceptance of beliefs about Country. A strong, deep attitude towards family / village having a key role in raising a child. My sister in law tells me I’ve raised my daughter as a good PNG girl. Apparently my grand daughter is also showing signs too, lol.
Being able to sit with the women in the markets and looking at all the bilums, brought back so many memories.
I remembered how the women would sit on a dirt floor and hand twine the flax to use in making the bilums. The steady weaving of a bilum by hand, making sure each loop was the same size, while the evening meal cooked on an open fire. Nothing has changed!
The Challenges Faced By Our Hand Woven String Bag Makers
Where do I begin?
Limited or no access to electricity.
Poor, sometimes inaccessible roads outside key centres. The one below had recently been graded, but within days of rain, was un passable.
Limited schooling [ teachers have’t been paid for 3 years last I heard].
Limited or no access to medical aid or medicine.
Violence fueled by drugs, alcohol or tribal conflict.
Geographic isolation due to mountainous terrain and lack of ready transport.
Basic housing made with traditional materials that has no inside toilet, electricity, bathroom or kitchen. All washing, toiletting and cooking is done outside or under the house.
These women do it tough! Add to this list an extremely limited market to sell their bags and you have a real challenge to earn a living.
How do we help?
We buy directly from them. Cash in hand at a price they set. There is NO haggling with them, though we do insist on quality.
By paying these women directly, we empower them. THEY choose how they spend their money. We don’t mark the bags up or donate a percentage of our sales to buying bags of rice, or paying a charity organisation.
These women don’t want charity. They don’t want pity. They want to choose whether they spend their money on their child’s schooling or urgent medical aid.